Saturday, January 29, 2011

POLITICS: Egyptian intifada

It's times like these that speaking and reading Arabic would come in handy. Still, we'll make do with English-language sources and translations.

[01] The Washington Post describes one Egyptian revolutionary.

IN CAIRO Abdel Zaher Dandarwi does not look like a revolutionary. At 53, his hair is graying at the temples and his eyes betray more fatigue than fury.

But it was fatigue - with the daily corruption, the detached ruling clique and the rot permeating this once-proud nation at the heart of the Arab world - that drove him to the streets this week to voice a revolutionary thought: "Down with Mubarak!"

... "There's a suffocating atmosphere in Egypt, and I'm tired of it," said Dandarwi, a lawyer dressed impeccably in a dark blue pinstriped suit, who quietly sipped coffee Thursday afternoon as he waited for the next protest to begin. "The elections are fraudulent. The people in power monopolize all the resources. There are no jobs. There's no health care. And I can't afford good schools for my children."

Why do people like this join a protest march?

The protesters in Egypt have been largely middle class - lawyers, doctors, university students and professors. They have something to lose if this nation of 86 million descends into anarchy, but they also say they may not have much left if Egypt does not shift course.
[02] Thanks to SC for pointing out this lengthy and relatively frequently updated blogpost from the left-leaning Mother Jones website. Some good links.

[03] Watch live AlJazeera English streaming with brave reporters as well as eyewitnesses on the ground.

[04] Police left streets of Alexandria, now patrolled by ordinary citizens protecting their neighbourhoods. Apparently advice like this is being spread among them.

[05] AlJazeera English (AJE) reporting on protests after Friday prayers (around 12am, 05 Feb). In Alexandria, Christian groups set up a cordon around Muslim worshippers performing their Friday congregational prayers.. For more details from Tahrir Square in Cairo, follow Shirene Tadros' tweets.

[06] One of my fans has recently posted this item on his blog. Here is an excerpt from the comment posted by one of his regular readers:

I would like to invite the islamic community to explain why we should not exterminate it.


Thursday, January 13, 2011

OPINION: Rhetoric of religious right inflames zealots in East and West

There are certain similarities between recent political shootings in the US and Pakistan, IRFAN YUSUF writes

A bitter political debate is played out in the media and among politicians about the alleged danger posed by a tiny and extremely vulnerable minority. Populist and allegedly conservative politicians pass draconian legislation at the expense of this minority, thousands of whose members are then prosecuted. Rallies are held in support of the draconian laws and threats are made against those few politicians calling for law reform to protect the minority.

Then one of these politicians is shot in a broad daylight in a public area. Evidence shows the gunman is influenced by the inflammatory rhetoric of those conservative forces supporting the new law. The gunman believes the future of the nation is at stake and that the politician had to be killed.

I could be describing recent events on a main road in Islamabad in which a lone gunman murdered Governor Salmaan Taseer in Pakistan. Then again, I could just as easily be describing events at a shopping centre in Tucson, Arizona, in which another gunman shot and wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Also killed were a US district judge and at least four others.

Taseer’s assassin was his own bodyguard. Evidence suggests the man’s religious sentiments were offended by Taseer’s calls to amend, if not abolish, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Malik Mumtaz Qadri was said to be inspired by the fiery rhetoric of Pakistan’s religious groups, whose leaders had drawn thousands to rallies calling for the mandatory death penalty for blasphemy to remain. These leaders claimed that any watering-down of the law represented a direct threat to the Muslim heritage of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The fact that these laws were often used to harass Christian minorities was of little consequence.

Evidence suggests Jared Lee Lougner, the 22-year-old who shot the Democrat congresswoman in Arizona, was inspired by the fiery gun-toting rhetoric of Tea Party elements in the Republican Party. The New York Times has described this rhetoric as reinforcing

the dominant imagery of the moment — a portrayal of 21st-century Washington as being like 18th century Lexington and Concord, an occupied country on the verge of armed rebellion.

Some may believe that comparing the two incidents is like comparing apples and oranges. Allegedly conservative politicians and pundits in Australia and other Western countries may especially be offended by the comparison between anti-immigrant and strong border protection sentiments of the Tea Party movement and the extreme Islamist sentiments of Taseer’s killer.

It’s often said by allegedly conservative commentators that Islamists are in alliance with the left. They should travel to Pakistan and see if anyone takes their claims seriously.

Salman Taseer, the progressive (albeit super-wealthy) politician, belonged to a socialist (albeit of the champagne variety) party calling itself the Pakistan People’s Party. His assassin says he acted to defend traditional values. Not only religious party leaders but also conservative pundits and small business leaders are coming to his defence.

And what are conservative opposition politicians saying in condemnation of the assassin’s actions? Not much. And why should they? After all, they are the beneficiaries of this sentiment in the long run. Not only that, but mainstream conservative parties in Pakistan almost inevitably rule in coalition with religious parties such as the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan, one of whose leaders stated on Pakistani national television that Salmaan Taseer’s death was God’s verdict and nobody who loves the prophet Muhammad could or should condemn the governor’s murder.

Some readers will object that our conservatives generally don’t go around assassinating people. True, but how many Pakistani conservatives are assassins? But in both east and west we see the religious right engaging in similarly hostile rhetoric and using the prejudices of ethnic and religious zealots for their own political ends. Meanwhile, mainstream conservatives are silent, refusing to directly condemn violence and so fanning the flames of the dogwhistlers and making minorities feel vulnerable.

In both the US and Pakistan, powerful, well-funded forces are using conservative, religiously inspired political rhetoric to hijack the agenda. This is not just left versus right. In Pakistan, the allegedly socialist Pakistan People’s Party has been just as willing to enter into coalitions with the religious right. Benazir Bhutto’s government happily joined with her coalition partners to ensure religiously inspired punishments for adultery were kept.

The violent incidents in Tucson and Islamabad may be seen as being consistent with a wider struggle within both countries. There are those happy to see religious and cultural diversity maintained. Then there are those wishing to impose a form of monocultural uniformity. In the Cold War era, the latter were seen as representative of communism. Today, alleged conservatives are behaving like communists.

There is one clear difference between the US and Pakistan. People on all sides of politics in the US have come together to condemn the actions of the gunman in Arizona and to express their sympathy for his victims. Even the county sheriff has lashed out at ...

... the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out, from people in the radio business, and some people in the TV business’’ and says Arizona has ‘‘become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.

In Pakistan, religious forces have effectively silenced any opposition to blasphemy laws. One group, the Sunni Tehreek, has gone so far as to say ...

We will provide legal and constitutional protection to Mumtaz Qadri.

Religious parties are threatening a more organised form of vigilantism than provided by the Governor’s bodyguard. Popular TV preacher and scholar Javed Ghamdi has been forced to move to Dubai after receiving death threats for speaking out against blasphemy laws.

Pakistan’s religious right has gone off the rails and is taking the rest of the country with it. America hasn’t quite gone down that path. At least, not yet.

Irfan Yusuf is a lawyer and author of Once Were Radicals. This piece was first published in the Canberra Times in Wednesday January 12 2011.

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Sunday, January 09, 2011

COMMENT: Religious minorities ...

In Egypt, following the bombing of a Coptic Church in Alexandria, Christians and Muslims marched in the streets in protest. Christians and Muslims called on the government to end discrimination against Coptic Christians. Muslims offered protection to Christian churches. Muslims even attended Christmas services in Coptic churches, acting as human shields.

That's what is happening in Egypt. So what about Australia? This is what we read in The Australian:

Father Gabriel Yassa, of Archangel & St Bishoy Church, at Mt Druitt, in Sydney's west - one of the targeted churches - told The Weekend Australian that the nation's Islamic leaders needed to speak out against the threats.

"I just hope that the leaders in the Islamic community take their responsibilities well and crush out any of those elements in their community," Father Yassa said.

"The important thing is that all of us take this matter seriously and look out for one another."

Father Yassa said he did not know the exact wording of the threat, but said the terrorist group was "just throwing out a message to the Islamic community to hurt Coptic Christians and I suppose they then just wait to see whoever picks up on it and who goes with it".

What unnecessary and ridiculous comments to make at this time. Does Father Yassa honestly think that terrorist groups put out feelers to get ordinary Muslims to bomb churches?

Instead of inviting Muslims to a common platform, Father Yassa seems more interested in alienating them. He must be getting PR tips by watching clips of Shaykh Hilaly's past verbal indiscretions.

Seriously, how ridiculous. No doubt many Aussie Copts will be extremely embarrassed.

Perhaps someone should remind Father Yassa that when anti-Muslim prejudice rises in Australia, among the first targets are Arab churches that resemble mosques. Like the Egyptian Coptic church shown below while under construction.

On the other hand, Muslims need to do much more than speak out. We need to pressure embassies and governments of Muslim-majority states to ensure that the rights of religious minorities are protected.

UPDATE I: Very interesting discussion on the Riz Khan show below.

UPDATE II: A really disturbing report from Iraq.

Words © 2011 Irfan Yusuf

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Wednesday, January 05, 2011

POLITICS: Murderous blasphemy or blasphemous murder?

The governor of Pakistan's wealthiest province was gunned down. Salmaan Taseer was killed by his bodyguard at close range. The guard claims he shot his boss due to the latter's opposition to blasphemy laws.

UPDATE I: Here is a response from Huma Imtiaz. I have no idea who she is but I endorse every word of her response.

UPDATE II: The allegedly more "moderate" Barelwi school of thought has been even more virulent in its support for the murderer of Taseer. Apparently describing oppressive laws as "black" is a crime deserving extra-judicial killing in their eyes.

UPDATE III: Here are some more supportive responses.

UPDATE IV: Taseer was a severe critic of drone attacks on Pakistan. Then again, who wouldn't be. Imagine if the US started sending drone planes to attack civilians of its other allies? It doesn't help when 98% of those killed aren't exactly terrorists.

UPDATE V: Here is a video of a press conference which Taseer had with Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who was charged under Pakistan's blasphemy laws. Apologies to those who cannot understand Urdu. I'll try to translate when I get a chance.

UPDATE VI: I'm not all that good at Urdu. With a small bit of help from my mother, who has a Masters in Urdu from Punjab University, here is what I could make of the first half or so of the video.

[Addressing Aasia Bibi:]
Here you have appealed to the President.

[Aasia Bibi places a thumb print on the appeal papers. Break, then Salmaan Taseer addresses the audience with Aasia Bibi seated to his right.]
I wish to begin with mentioning the name of God who is gracious and merciful beyond limits. I have come here to meet with Aasia Bibi. She has been imprisoned for some 18 months and she has been sentenced in a manner which I regard as extreme (saqat) and oppressive (zalim). She has appealed to the President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari that she be pardoned. God-willing, the President will for the sake of humanity ... pardon this woman.

Let me also say that the Pakistan founded by Qaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah never had such a law and never could have been passed. Our religion also protects people’s conscience (aqaliyyat). The founder of Pakistan had a white ribbon placed on the Pakistani flag so that people’s differences of beliefs could be recognised and protected.

For this reason, the punishment to which she has been sentenced is, I believe, inhumane (insaniyat ke khilaf) ... She has approached me in my capacity as Governor of Punjab and has asked me to deliver her appeal to the President so that God-willing she will be pardoned.

In a country where 97% of the population are Muslim, it is impossible that any insult can be made to the purified name of the Messenger of God. Here we are all Muslims. I am convinced after studying her case that there was no such incident. She is a poverty-stricken woman who had no legal assistance or representation or the means to afford such representation. By placing such poor minorities through such legal proceedings, we are making a mockery of the foundational ideas of Pakistan and its founder.

UPDATE VII: Every time you think things can't possibly get worse in Sudanand Dhume's writing, along comes a piece to prove you wrong. Where do I start with this shocker?

Taseer's killer, a 26-year-old named Mumtaz Qadri, symbolizes Maududi's vision. In photographs, he's bearded and moustache-less, in the manner prescribed by fundamentalist Islam.

Actually, it is prescribed by certain elements in Sunni Islam. It is not prescribed in the Barelwi school of South Asian Sunnism, and it is Pakistan's Barelwi scholars who have been at the forefront of opposing Taseer. It is also not prescribed by Shia scholars. Muqtada as-Sadr has a healthy moustache. I guess that makes him a moderate in Dhume's eyes.

That Mr. Qadri could defy South Asia's usually rigid codes of hierarchy by murdering someone far above his station jibes with the contempt radical Islamists often feel for traditional elites.

What the ...? Is Dhume saying that people in Punjab never murder those richer and more powerful than them? Is he living in the world of the Ramayana?

The murder highlights anew the way in which Pakistan's English-speaking classes resemble a small island of urbanity surrounded by a rising tide of fundamentalist zeal.

So speaking English is a sure sign that one doesn't have fundamentalist zeal. Dhume dude, half my family are in the Jamaat-i-Islami. They speak fluent English and almost all have green cards. They belong to the same English-speaking class. I'm too scared to ask them what they thought of Taseer's death.

Mr. Dhume is a columnist for and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC.

The AEI? I guess that says it all.

UPDATE VIII: Moronic religious parties joined by equally moronic lawyers.

UPDATE IX: Here's an interesting column from Jawed Naqvi writing from Delhi in Dawn. Particularly perceptive is the comparison between the role of religious extremism in India and Pakistan.

... Rahul Gandhi in the neighbourhood. India`s Congress party scion had made a valid point about the threat to his country from Hindu extremists — just as Pakistan is being wrecked by Muslim bigots — but instead of telling his countrymen about it, he whispered his worry into the ears of the American ambassador in Delhi. Nothing could be as self-defeating as not trusting your very own in the battle to defend your core ideals.

In a curious way, the fact that the young Gandhi mentioned the Hindutva threat to US ambassador Tim Roemer, in fact, added to his credibility. A public statement would in most likelihood be pounced upon by his detractors as a populist and a potentially communal ploy to curry favour with Muslims and so forth. That particular worry should, of course, be no reason to keep the nation oblivious of an ominous possibility.

Right-wing Hindus expectedly pooh-poohed Gandhi`s remarks to Roemer, which would probably never have surfaced but for the WikiLeaks` revelations. He contended that the Hindutva upsurge posed a greater threat to India than did Muslim extremism. The view appeared to be based on a simple and compelling logic. Muslim extremists threaten Pakistan because they are or were part of the state structures thanks to Gen Zia`s policies. Likewise, Hindutva and not so much Muslim bigots challenge Indian secularism.

The reason is not difficult to comprehend. Although homegrown Muslim fanatics in India, even those having links with Lashkar-i-Taiba from across the border, have a stake in destroying India`s secularism, they remain handicapped in their mission because of their total absence from the levers of state power.

Hindutva forces, on the other hand, like their counterparts in Pakistan, have penetrated nearly all the sectors of state that matter. Parliament is the only place where so far they cannot carry out subversion. Of course, it may not take long before they are emboldened to contemplate doing just that.

UPDATE X: There was a time when assassins were considered the enemy of Muslims, fought by governments and despised by religious scholars. They were forced to live in a tall tower in the middle of nowhere. Today in Pakistan they have become mainstream. Some say it is time to hail and cheer them. OK, he's being tongue-in-cheek.

UPDATE XI: The UK Independent reports that

Twenty thousand supporters of fundamentalist parties have rallied in the streets of Karachi in support of Pakistan's blasphemy laws as they escalated threats against liberal politicians who, like Salmaan Taseer, the slain governor of Punjab, want to see them amended.

Gee, that really is a huge rally. For Wollongong. Or for Canberra. But for Karachi, a city of around 12 million? The Independent describes it as ...

[t]he biggest muscle-flexing display by the religious right for years in Pakistan's largest city ...
And what proportion of Karachi-walas turned up to the second biggest? More than 0.16667%? Yep, these manic maulanas have plenty of support.